You may think you live where you do, but in fact you are living in Athens! The United States, Canada, Britain, Europe, and Australia are amazingly similar to the Athens of Paul's day. Cynicism, confusion, and resistance to truth marked Athens then, and mark much of our world today.
In Acts 17, it says that Paul preached in three cities—Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens. When he later had time to reflect, it is not difficult imagining Paul thinking that these places weren't anything alike; that they were almost like three different planets.
Thessalonica: conversions, but stiff persecution
It was Sabbath and Paul entered the synagogue in Thessalonica. In an act of audacity, he proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ. Conversions occurred, especially among the Greeks. "But the hard-line Jews became furious over the conversions. Mad with jealousy, they rounded up a bunch of brawlers off the streets and soon had an ugly mob terrorizing the city as they hunted down Paul and Silas" (Acts 17:5, The Message). To save their lives, the believers whisked the evangelists out of town under the dim glow of suffocated stars.
Berea: Lots of conversions, no internal persecution
The next town was different. It was an easy place to work. Paul preached, people pondered, and many were persuaded. Luke reports that "these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily" (Acts 17:11).
Even more exciting, it was apparently the Jews who led the way in receiving the gospel. The Bereans absorbed the truth eagerly. Later, persecution arrived from Thessalonica, but none from Berea itself.
Athens: few conversions
Then there was Athens—a virtual junkyard of idols. "It is plain to see that you Athenians take your religion seriously" (Acts 17:22, The Message), Paul declared. Athens was indeed very religious. Worshipers chose their god of the month from an idol-rich menu. Their fascination with theories revealed a frightening mix of intelligence and naivete. The result? Few received the Messiah.
Paul never planted a church in Athens. Yet Ellen White heaps praise on Paul for his efforts and his methods in Athens. She calls his ministry there a "victory he gained for Christianity in the very heart of paganism.'" Paul wasn't used to this kind of victory, but then this was Athens.
Our twenty-first-century world
The cities of Acts 17 help us understand our world today. When it comes to spiritual receptivity, interest varies widely from place to place, even from nation to nation. But the nature and degree of receptivity generally cor responds to one of these three cities.
Thessalonica: restricted nations. Some coun tries of the world are like Thessalonica. We preach the gospel and people are converted, but persecution results. All these countries are dominated either by religious or communist extremists. In these places Adventists and other Christians are generally mystified as to how to advance the kingdom.
Berea: open nations. Other countries are like Berea. It's fun to evangelize in Berea! In such places a team of workers goes to work and thousands are converted. The laws of the land support freedom to practice and propagate religion. People are ravenous for Bibles and for the truth.
Consider Pastor Dave, a friend of mine, who recently conducted a reaping series in a "Berean" country. He returned to America with his face glowing like Moses' after Sinai. Stories spilled out of him. His photos were astonishing. He insisted I see every one. He described how from where he had stood, high on a plat form as he preached each evening, it had been impossible to see where the crowds of people ended. On the final Sabbath, hundreds of brand-new Christians followed Jesus in baptism. I praised God with him at the mighty moving of the Spirit. Evangelism in Berea is thrilling. It gives us hope. It assures us that God is still blessing the church.
Athens: first-world nations. Pastor Dave returned to his own hometown and preached a reaping series. Same preacher, same sermons, same computer, same Holy Spirit. He baptized 11 people. What is the difference? He lives in "Athens." The United States is Athens.
Canada is Athens. Australia, New Zealand, and most of Europe are Athens. Spiritual receptivity is different in these places, especially among the majority population, and we shouldn't be surprised. 2
Nationally speaking, many of us are stuck in Athens. The gospel com mission demands that we minister where we are.
Here are our options. First, we can ignore the people of Athens and conclude that they don't care about God. We can throw up our hands in pretended concern and say, "They know where our churches are. If they were interested, they would come."
Or, instead, we can resolve, "We are not afraid of Athens. Our mission is clear: to take the message of Jesus right into the heart of the toughest places on earth. Under the Holy Spirit, we will not shrink back. In fact, we will prevail."
Some basic assumptions
Let's build assumptions:
- Soul winning is in the Adventist DNA. Clearly, our approach is less effective than in years gone by, but we still truly care. If we knew what to do, we would do it.
- The people of Athens are spiritually polarized. While many drift off into postmodernism or other orientations and religions, thousands from all ages and backgrounds are joining churches. In either case, everyone is searching for something better.
- What works in Berea may or may not work in Athens.
- What used to work in Athens in a previous era is only effective if it's still relevant today.
- When the church lives the gospel and communicates the message in ways appropriate with the times, we will experience a vigorous revival.
Our evangelism is too narrow
Our current evangelistic methods are OK, but it seems to me that they're too narrow. When our local church announces that it is planning to "do evangelism," we all know what to expect. Here's what we envision.
- We will host an event four nights a week for five weeks or so.
- A professional will make the presentations, sometimes in person, sometimes via satellite.
- The event will interrupt the life of the church; when it's over, we'll get back to doing church as usual.
- We will spend a lot of money advertising to people whom we've never met.
- We will measure success by the number of baptisms.
- It will appeal to an ever shrinking minority in our community.
Two issues contribute to the shrinking. First is time. Suppose you receive a flyer in the mail inviting you to attend a seminar on your favorite topic (trekking in Nepal; remodeling your house; or whatever). Then you notice that it meets four nights a week for five weeks. Would you attend? Could you attend? Probably not.
The second issue has to do with curiosity about the Bible. According to one study, 4 percent of Americans say they would be interested in attending a seminar to learn more about the Bible and prophecy.3
If we plot the 4 percent on a piechart, it looks something like this. (See PDF)
As time goes along in places like "Athens," we find ourselves having to spend even more money to attract a crowd from this ever-narrowing slice of the population. And what about the other 96 percent? Consciously or not, they are all seeking for God. How will we reach them?
Now consider the evangelism scale.4 (See PDF)
On this scale, someone who is, spiritually speaking, a long way from God is a minus ten. The steps toward the cross indicate a warming up toward Christianity until, at the cross, the per son chooses to be a Christ-follower. The steps east of the cross denote spiritual growth with the eventual goal of becoming a definitely devoted disciple or what I call a 3-D Christian.
Reflect on the 4 percent who say they would be interested in attending a seminar to learn more about the Bible and prophecy. What is true about them in relationship to the evangelism scale? Most of them believe in absolute truth5 and would like to learn more about the Bible.
If we were to plot them on the scale, they would be very close to the cross, at minus one or two. But when our only evangelism is the semi-often event, we appeal to people close to the cross and unwittingly exclude the rest. Since they stay away from our meetings, we make the tragic assumption that they don't care about God.
Average Americans are somewhere in the neighborhood of minus six on the scale—they do indeed care about God. In their heart of hearts, they know there is a final answer. Sure they're confused about the Bible. Ask them what word comes to mind when they think of church and their answer will fall somewhere between "boring" and "leave me alone." But in their own way, they are seeking. And we can reach many of them with the gospel.
If we're ready to broaden our definition of evangelism, we have to start with four paradigm shifts.
1. The goal of the gospel commission is to make disciples. For years, we were confused about the gospel commission. We thought Jesus said, "Go ye therefore and baptize" when He actually said, "Go and make disciples." So the conference president demands to know, "How many did you baptize?"
But as rare as penguins in Chicago are churches with a discipleship track to help the new member actually become a definitely devoted disciple.
And who exactly is a disciple? One who has the character and priorities of Jesus. "I tell you the truth," Jesus says, "anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12, NIV). The implications of these words are indeed profound.
Traditional evangelism starts with people who are already close to the cross. Through four to five weeks of meetings, the Holy Spirit moves them a notch or two to the point of decision which, on the evangelism scale, is represented by the cross. With their clothes still wet from their baptism, the evangelist tows his trailer to the next town. And in so many cases that is about all that is done about the "discipling" of the new believer.
This, in all honesty, largely explains the high apostasy rate among persons baptized through a series of meetings.
2. Evangelism is not an event; it is a process. Every farmer knows that you reap in a different season from the one in which you sow. Unfortunately, few in church leadership have figured out that this is also true in evangelism.
Winning people to Jesus has always been a process. Paul says, "I planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the increase" (1 Cor. 3:6, NKJV).
"I'll do my part," Paul says, "then I trust that God will bring Apollos along to water the seed. And I'm confident that God can be counted on to give the increase."
When evangelism becomes more than just an event, thousands will find salvation. But let's be honest. We're addicted to the quick fix. In effect, the evangelist is taught to think, Who needs Apollos? If I don't get the decision now, they may never make it.
The event we call evangelism has unwittingly pushed aside the discipling process as though it was an unwanted weed in a flowerbed. Almost anything other than this fast track evangelism is pooh-poohed as not really evangelism. Which brings us to our third paradigm shift.
3. We have to redefine some terms.
Evangelism. If the four- to five-week event is basic to our definition of evangelism, what does that say about everything else the church does? It isn't evangelism, or at least it isn't really evangelism. And since it isn't, we don't really try much else. After all, at best anything else is seen to be something second best. So, we shouldn't be too surprised when, apart from the short evangelistic series, baptisms are an infrequent occurrence, and that we therefore are all the more determined to have as many "evangelistic meetings" as possible, thus perpetuating our struggles.
Everything a church does can and should have an evangelistic dimension. Accordingly, it is urgent that we change our vocabulary. We have to stop calling the four- to five-week event "evangelism," It is a part of evangelism—a vital part when done as one element in the process. But by itself, it is not evangelism. Instead, let's call it reaping, or the harvest event, or some other contemporary name.
Rewind to the 1950s, and you'll find that what we currently call evangelism used to, in fact, be reaping.
What have we done today? Taken the six-week reaping series, com pressed it down to five, four, or even three weeks. And since we almost never have contact with non- Adventists before the series begins, we advertise to total strangers who don't even know we are Adventists, then turn the extra-short series into the entire process of evangelism.
We urge people to hurry and get baptized, then when they leave, we scratch our heads and lament that the information transfer was not enough to ground them in the church.
Evangelist. The second term we must redefine is "evangelist." If the person who tows his trailer into town—or speaks from a distant city via satellite—is the evangelist, what does that say about the rest of us? We aren't. And since we aren't, it seems perfectly logical that we shouldn't worry too much about doing it. We'll just leave the job to the pro.
We have to redefine the word. If the four- to five-week event is called "reaping," what should we call the person who leads the reaping? The obvious answer is "reaper." So we have chosen to call this person the "reaping specialist."
So we have to change our vocabulary. What we used to call evangelism we now call reaping. The evangelist is now the reaping specialist. And every one else in the church becomes an evangelist in a way that matches their spiritual maturity and gifts.
Sanctuary. I think we need to redefine the word sanctuary. What, literally, does the word mean? The dictionary says: "A place of refuge or asylum. A reserved area in which animals or birds are protected."
When we refer to the room where we worship God as the sanctuary, we aren't really being biblical. Since the Cross, the Bible speaks of two sanctuaries; one is in heaven, the other is the human heart. Furthermore, we send the wrong message when we call the place we meet the sanctuary. The common understanding is that a sanctuary is for protection. But from what does the church protect us?
I think the church could more easily recapture its passion for mission if we stopped reinforcing the notion that the world is bad, the church is good and we come together to protect ourselves from evil. That way of thinking, in fact, lies near the root of our problem.
4. The Great Commission does not say, "Come," it says, "Go." This paradigm shift is especially profound. We act as if the gospel commission was given to the lost, telling them to come to our churches. So we create events: health programs, reaping series, Bible study classes, then hope people will come to us.
Just to be sure, I looked up the word "go" in the dictionary. It says: "To move or travel. To move away from a place; depart. To function properly, as in: The car won't go." The problem, it seems, is that many believers won't go.
Society has changed. People no longer bring their kids to church as they did. This is for an obvious reason: Their kids are grown up. If we operate merely on the Come paradigm, we will fail. Especially today, the church must Go. Which brings us to another word that needs to be redefined.
Seeker. For years, we have used the word "seeker" to refer to lost people who are searching for God. It's a reasonable definition, but it is based on Come instead of Go. The church must now take the initiative. It must move from being the inviting church to becoming the infiltrating church.
It is not enough for the church to be "seeker-sensitive." The church itself must become the seeker. The ultimate seeker is Jesus Christ. To be faithful to our mission, to follow in His footsteps, we are today's seekers.
When every member embraces that vision and the church organizes accordingly, we will begin to reach the lost in Athens in significantly greater numbers. Not only would that be awesome for the church, it would thrill the heart of God.
1 Ellen White, Acts of the Apostles (Nampa, Idaho Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 241.
2 We see pockets of Bercin Athens, mainly immigrants--Hispanics in America.
3 Extrapolated from reserach conducted by Donnelly Marketing Group Reported in Marketing for Congregations, 190-195.
4 Adapted from the Eagle Scale.
5 Barna Research Group reports that fewer than 3 ourt of 10 Americans even believe that there is such as a thing as absolute truth.
6 Authored by Rebecca Pippert